Crew bus on the edge of a Himalayan cliff

On the very first day of shooting Woodwind, our crew bus hung on the edge of a cliff with two wheels in the air. We had a 50-50 chance, so who’s in and who’s out?

There’s a Morrissey song which goes, “And if a double-decker bus, crashes into us, to die by your side, is such a heavenly way to die. And if a ten ton truck kills the both of us, to die by your side, well the pleasure, the privilege is mine.”

These lyrics of There is a Light That Never Goes Out, rang through my mind as our crew bus journeyed to the Himalayas in India. At first we were on the foothills of the Himalayas 2276m, as our crew bus attempted to turn around on a narrow sand road, our super driver Mr Narandas hadn’t realized a large chunk on the edge of the road had broken away. So, he’d rocked the backside of the bus over it, and in that very moment the gears stopped working. Trying to shift from reverse to first gear, the momentum of the bus tilted backward and two wheels on one side of the bus swung over the cliff… and just hung there suspended, while the other two wheels somehow balanced by ‘holding’ onto the road.

A minute earlier we had packed the camera gear back in the bus, after our very first shoot on Woodwind. So we were about to jump right back in, so fortunately (for us) Narandas was turning the bus around in the direction of the path ahead. You might say that we watched on in astonishment, but I was (and others confirmed) numb because we had experienced so many difficult challenges riding up to the first day, that this very moment translated into, “Okay, of course, what next?”

Narandas jerked between the gears but every attempt resulted in the bus creeping a few more centimetres over the edge. It felt as if we were shooting for weeks already, never mind this being the first day. The following thought finally reached my mind, “So, maybe this means we’re not going to make the film.” Of course that wasn’t the first thought. Narandas was in the bus. He wasn’t part of the technical crew or cast, but we had grown into him, his humour (not sure if he intended to be funny) with broken English, his patience to wait for us hours on end and start singing the minute we returned with tons of gear and finally his strength to tolerate everything that flew his way. No, we’re not writing an obituary yet. Talking about that gear, it was all in there; about 150kg of military style equipment all packed in silver boxes on the back end of the bus, leaning the weight on the edge of the cliff. I looked down from beside the bus, a few more centimetres and the bus would fall to the bottom, with Narandas, all our gear and bags of clothes.

My crew knows me as a calm director, working out solutions first as to what next, after it all might end up at the bottom of the pit. A rescue vehicle might take hours to reach us at the top here, considering how narrow these roads were winding around the waist of the mountain. We flew from each continent to India to shoot Woodwind, but the sole objective of this trip would’ve reached a premature end right there. In every moment behind every scene, I asked myself, “What can I learn from this experience, from those early days of the beginning that could’ve been the end?”

Yes, I began researching and developing the script 10 years ago. Pre-production from the time of the screenplay was about 18 months in the works. Could ten of us push the bus back on the road? No, the way the bus was acting on the edge with a full force of weight on its’ back, it looked as though any moment it could give up the ghost and go, so if you were beside it, gravity would pull you down with it to the bottom. Narandas called his Mighty Mouse assistant, who then crawled underneath the bus to fix the gears. After a few failed attempts as the driver shifted gears and the bus snorted on the edge of the cliff, a few of us looked on in disbelief that Narandas and our little savior Bepa had managed to first gear it back onto the road. We read our prayers. Don’t look back!

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Bepa, Narandas, Nicolas and our guide Munish (Photos by Ivana Neskovic)

I want to thank all those members of the cast and crew who journeyed with us to the Himalayas, who sacrificed other films for a month, those who prepared for months on end with me and who believed in the direction of Woodwind. This belief mirrored the leap of faith our protagonist Bonifaz carried within him, to make his own journey to the Himalayas, life always driving parallel to art.

I told Bonifaz (Leandro Taub) that normally everyone should imagine that his journey is an impossible one, reaching heights beyond reason where nobody else but Bonifaz would believe. That inner strength in itself epitomizes the transformation of Bonifaz, from the most rationalistic doubter to a man who walked on the edge to reach the summit. Leandro replied that he was ready to do everything, even if it meant he wouldn’t eat for days like Bonifaz in a deserted, dry mountain landscape… this was Bonifaz.

On the road Leandro had carried the Delhi belly, the runny tummy, the spewing out of lava from the mountains that shook his insides out… but Leandro was absolutely determined to be Bonifaz when we switched on the camera on Day 1. His call to action, “Party time!” echoed through the valleys as a driving force to lift weakened spirits on what was for even those who never believed, a spiritual journey.

The night before we hung on the edge of the cliff, Leandro and assistant camera Rebecca Furlong had fallen ill. Our hotel had deserted us, giving our booking away to higher rolling bribery on a night when the whole town’s rooms were taken for a festival. We drove on to the next town before the mountain pass, because it would be madness to drive blindly at night around those circular, heady roads when you consider that trucks overtake you every five minutes and you’re not sure which way is the right side of the road.

So, we setup camp before the pass in the last hotel before the Mt. We imagined it was riddled with diseases flowing in the gutters all around it, what creatures crawled from deep beneath into the Indian chimney and over our radiators? Sleep, as we lay on the edge of Day 1. Sleep, so that you may awake anew. The Bates motel proved to be rooms of healing like the woods of Lorien in the Fellowship of the Ring. Leandro and Rebecca slept like babies and regained their strength for the real journey ahead.

The real test of the journey lay ahead to the peaks of the Himalayas, 4000m altitude. A month earlier we had mapped the route to our set location, beginning two hours inland with jeep over unsteady terrain and then an eight hour walking trek, carrying 150 kg gear across dry, rocky mountains and over a bridge that swept tourists away, a real Indiana Jones – The Temple of Doom style path… I kid you not. Surprisingly, most of our crew was eager for that adventure.

I spoke to our cinematographer Nicolas Joray, the daddy of our team, “Listen Nicolas, everyone else wants to do it, and I’m not sure because I cannot risk the health of the team, without sufficient time to acclimatize to the 4000m altitude. We’d need at least two days rest on that Kashmir mountain hotel before we begin. Your young assistant camera crew said they’d inhale coca leaves to make up for the lack of oxygen, drink litres of water but I don’t want the crew to fall like flies from the Mt. Nicolas, you can remain behind in the hotel just this once and we can send out the 2nd unit camera team, which is happy to double for you.”

Nicolas replied, “What! Wait in the hotel? For what? I live on the mountains here in the Swiss Alps. I can carry the Arri Alexa on my shoulders. Bring the tripods too. Call the donkeys and their guides to lead us.”

I would carry Bonifaz to the summit, and when you meet and spend days on set with Nicolas, then you will believe his unshakable vision to meet the director’s vision, no matter what he says about logistics.

Suddenly, war broke out in Kashmir which threw a spanner into all our hotel bookings and schedules. During our entire production in India, the war intensified… and if Fin Pictures hadn’t reacted fast enough we could’ve been held in there for weeks on end, with the national military surrounding us, with no more than four people allowed to walk together outside. I had to redraw the map of our Himalayan trek, a map that led us to greener pastures east with Alpine trees in the mountains, where Narandas dreamed of green rivers, bridges and waterfalls.

Did Bonifaz reach the peak of his destiny in the Himalayas? Like the mystery of the Creatures of Prometheus, I’m not going to give it away before you watch the film and decide for yourself.

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